They Will Leave Us With a Shaken Earth
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From Bernard Fall's article "New Technology and a Familiar Strategy in Viet-Nam," published on December 28th, 1966.

A desperate fight broke out on the far side of McNamara’s Plaza just as I sat down to interview General Roland. Even at a distance we could hear the rattle of machine-gun fire flare up before being drowned out by nearby batteries of heavy guns. Exploding artillery shells echoed through the hazy morning, rattling all the windows in downtown Saigon but failing to faze my impeccably uniformed host.

General Roland is part of the new breed of American fighting men, a veteran of Korea tapped to oversee one of the most sensitive aspects of Lyndon Johnson's escalation. Big, tall, he carries himself with a brusque, almost rambunctious air; surface informality conceals a quick mind and a deep belief in the inevitability of American success — if they can just get their hands on the right tools.

We had met to discuss the latest generation of “Special Talents” soldiers whose recent, spectacular debut rests at the center of the Army's newest push to bring some resolution to the nineteen year old Indochina War. The current hostilities, a large Viet Cong raid on the outer defenses of the city, were an unscheduled backdrop to the meeting, but the general refused to be deterred by the percussive interruptions, and seized on one particularly significant blast as fuel for a tangent.

“All that stuff you hear out there,” he said, gesturing expansively towards the distant blasts, “is ours. Our planes find every Viet gun that gets within twenty miles of Saigon and smash it. Meanwhile, our heavy artillery puts out more firepower per square mile than any other army in history. We have complete weapons dominance over the Viet Minh.” He paused, rapping his knuckles on the desk. “What we haven't had is a certified way to chase down the Viets in their holes and through the jungle. At least, till now.”

The general's confidence was not wholly persuasive. Previous administrations had made similarly strident announcements of similarly decisive breakthroughs. Not two years previously, large batches of ultramodern auto-defoliants intended to destroy the enemy's jungle concealment had been deployed in tremendous concentrations in order to create a “firebreak” around the Vietnamese capital. The resulting strip of desolation, eight miles across and almost forty long, bears the name of McNamara’s Plaza in dubious tribute to its primogenitor.

An even earlier wonder-weapon promised to end the threat of Viet Cong tunnel complexes. Much was made of an array of specially constructed stakes which, when activated, sent massive waves of vibrations through the ground in order to shake any concealed excavations to pieces. The system proved far more effective at splintering the concrete roads on which Western forces depended than collapsing the enemy's deep tunnels.

General Roland shook off comparisons to earlier experiments irritably. “Everything you're talking about comes from the same period, the same mind-set. A failed mindset that the army has put behind it.”

“Today our operations are governed by our mobility, a mobility which the enemy totally lacks. Eleven years ago, the French had one hundred and sixty-seven aircraft to serve the needs of all of Indochina. Today, we send out that many planes on a single mission,” he said, warming to his theme. “Our air cavalry responds to Communist incursions before they can withdraw, and the boys in Special Talents predict those incursions more reliably than ever before.”

Details regarding the Special Talents units, or “Spectrals” are exceedingly difficult to come by, but any old Indochina hand knows that in mentioning only their intelligence functions the General far understates the extent of their activities in the field. No doubt the men of the 388th Independent Special Company would not recognize the character of their operations in that limited description.

“The Special Talents give us incredible precision,” Roland continued, “and what that precision means for the people of Viet-Nam is security, plain and simple. Security from Communist intimidation, security from Communist extortion…”

Letter from Bernard Fall to his wife, February 11th, 1967.

My beloved Dorothy,

There is a whole new war here, a new type of war, industrial and implacable. The American war machine has become unrecognizable.

Out in the jungle bear-clawed women hunt the Viet Cong through their own tunnels for hours before emerging. Airborne commandos on interdiction patrols carry weapons which calcify their targets in the blink of an eye. Villages suspected of sheltering the enemy are plastered in napalm that collects itself into a moving mass of fire and waits for survivors to emerge from cover before flaring back into life.

The administration's claims that such “special talents” represent a natural progression of any known science are utterly false. Perhaps no explanation for these things is possible.

Our government has chosen to fight the beliefs of a whole people with incomprehensible violence because they are totally unable to offer any alternative to Communism but poverty and corruption. Everywhere the absolute contempt of the Saigon clique for the people of Viet-Nam is clear.

For twelve years I have studied the conflicts of Viet-Nam and written and warned. I fear there is nothing more I can do here, except come home, and tell the world what they have done. I do not know if they will allow me.

Give my love to our daughters. You mean the world to me. I will be with you soon.


Bernard Fall disappeared on February 21st, 1967, while on patrol with a company of Marines in the war-torn region of Viet-Nam known as the "Street Without Joy." The fate of his final letter is unknown.

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